— by Liz Morrison

A little more than three years ago, AURI teamed up with the Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council and the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council to vet some 200 emerging technologies and identify those with the greatest potential to add value to corn and soybeans. The goal was to give Minnesota farmers and agricultural processors a glimpse of coming opportunities.

So how clear was AURI’s crystal ball?

Since late 2009, some promising technologies have stalled, others have steadily advanced, and a couple of underdogs have jumped to the forefront.

“We’ve had big crops, and lots of raw materials available,” which encourages the search for new uses, says Doug Root, AURI senior scientist of biomass & renewable products technologies. However, “Crop prices are up, too,” while natural gas prices have fallen by half. That has changed the financial picture for many promising corn and soybean processing ideas, he says, discouraging some and favoring others.

Corn stillage digestion is one opportunity that has moved to the back burner for the time being. Ethanol plants can use anaerobic digestion to generate methane, a natural gas substitute, from their own distillation byproducts, reducing the need for fossil fuel. But interest in the capital-intensive technology has waned as natural gas prices plunged.

By contrast, fractionation of corn distillers grains — a technology that didn’t even make the A-list three years ago — has been adopted by nearly all Minnesota ethanol plants. The market drivers: revived biodiesel manufacturing, which topped a billion gallons in 2012, and soaring soybean oil prices. These trends have boosted demand for non-food-grade corn oil to make renewable diesel and other bioproducts, Root says. Using the new techniques commercialized by innovative companies like GreenShift and Primafuel, ethanol plants across the corn belt are now extracting corn oil from distillers grains.

These two examples show the dynamic environment for agricultural innovation, Root says. Most of the top opportunities identified three years ago “have moved forward to some degree,” says Michael Sparby, AURI senior project strategist, “and AURI has been part of many of them.” And even though development has been slower than expected in some sectors, Root adds, AURI’s 2009 snapshot is still “a pretty good peek around the corner at what’s coming in the future.”

Below is a brief update on where some of those “top opps” are today.

Read more about AURI’s “top opps” for corn and soybeans at:

auri.org/2009/08/informa-corn-report/

auri.org/2009/08/informa-soybean-report/

Opportunities – Corn

Efficient ethanol production

Several alternative ethanol technologies are in the research or pilot-plant stage of development, says AURI’s Senior Director for Innovation & Commercialization Jen Wagner-Lahr. Private companies and land grant universities are working on conversion of corn stover to biofuel utilizing advanced enzyme technologies, improved yeast, and other
promising avenues.

Meanwhile, “Standard corn ethanol fermentation continues to improve every year,” Root adds. For example, modern ethanol plants now produce the biofuel with little or no water discharge, boosting efficiency and lowering water usage. There have also been big improvements in improving fuel yield and ethanol’s energy ratio — the amount of energy it takes to make ethanol compared to the amount of energy supplied by ethanol.

Front-end corn fractionation

Separating corn kernels into their components — hull, germ and starch — before fermentation holds great promise for improving ethanol plant profits. But the technology is still at the pilot-plant scale. In addition, front-end fractionation will require large capital investments and will greatly increase the complexity of ethanol plant operations, which is likely to delay implementation.

On a related front, AURI is working with researchers at the University of Minnesota to demonstrate new, cheaper techniques to extract zein, a valuable protein, from fractionated corn.

Biobutanol

Butanol, a high-value industrial alcohol currently worth about $10 per gallon, is usually made from petroleum. But new technology uses corn starch fermentation to produce renewable biobutanol, much like ethanol is made. Luverne, Minn., biofuel producer Gevo recently completed the world’s first commercial-scale renewable biobutanol plant, investing $40 million. Highwater Ethanol in Lamberton, Minn., is also installing biobutanol technology, giving the plant the flexibility to produce either ethanol or biobutanol, depending on markets.

Biobased Chemicals
 

Renewable, plant-based chemicals are beginning to replace petrochemicals in many consumer goods, and Minnesota companies are in the forefront of innovation.

For example, NatureWorks, based in Minnetonka, is a leading producer of PLA, a plastic made from corn. The company’s IngeoTM biopolymers are showing up in more and more products, such as clothing, bottles, cards, films, textiles, food packaging and more. AURI is working with several Minnesota companies that are manufacturing building materials with corn-based biopolymers.

Another state leader, BioAmber in Plymouth, has commercialized a proprietary process for making bio-succinic acid, an important chemical used to make solvents, plastics, personal care products, resins, and many other consumer goods. BioAmber is now producing bio-succinic acid in one of the world’s largest plant-based chemical manufacturing facilities, located in Pomacle, France. NatureWorks and BioAmber last year formed a joint venture, AmberWorks, to commercialize new plant-based polymers.

Opportunities – Soybeans

Improved biodiesel production

After falling by half in 2010, when federal tax credits lapsed, U.S. biodiesel production recovered in 2012, topping one billion gallons. Minnesota’s two large-scale biodiesel facilities, REG in Albert Lea and Minnesota Soybean Processors in Brewster, are producing biodiesel at full capacity.

New biodiesel manufacturing methods, including enzymatic transesterification and hydroprocessing, are still in the research phase, Root says, and implementation will be a big challenge. “There’s a real need for partnerships between scientists and engineers, businesses, and organizations like AURI that can help with implementation.”

Green chemicals

Record soybean oil prices have weighed on the development of new soybean-based products, such as bioplastics and renewable resins, Root says. “The need for new uses is less urgent than three years ago because of higher prices.” However, basic research on new technology is continuing in both private and public organizations.

New uses for glycerin

As biodiesel volume rebounded, supplies of glycerin, a biodiesel coproduct, have climbed. At the same time, demand for glycerin, especially refined glycerin, has strengthened; the product is used in soaps, lotions and many other consumer products. That has buoyed refined glycerin prices and prompted biodiesel plants across the country to install glycerin purification technology to capture the extra value.

Crude glycerin is also in demand for livestock feed, especially for cattle and hogs, says Al Doering, AURI coproducts scientist. AURI has done a lot of work on the use of glycerin in livestock feed, sponsoring research aimed at helping growers incorporate more of this economical feedstuff.

Specialty soybeans

Public and private plant breeders are developing soybean varieties that have special traits for specific end uses. Two new examples on the horizon: Higholeic oil soybeans  and low oligosaccharide soybean meal. Higholeic oil soybeans produce an oil that stays fresh without hydrogenation and holds up under high-heat deep frying. Low oligosaccharide soybeans present an opportunity for improved feed efficiency with soybean meal containing less oligosaccharides and more protein.

Specialty livestock feeds

Global demand for soy protein concentrate for livestock feed is surging, Root says, in part because supplies of fish meal, an alternative protein source, are declining due to overfishing. AURI is doing a great deal of work on cost-effective methods of processing soybeans for specialized nursery pig and aquaculture diets, Sparby says. These processing improvements, now being commercialized by Minnesota companies, are opening up new markets in North America and Asia.

 

AURI and Partners
Idea to reality:

In order to support Minnesota’s corn and soybean industries, there is a need to constantly generate ideas for new products and processes using those commodities.

AURI’s role:
In 2009, AURI worked to identify and select the best potential new uses for corn and soybeans.

Outcomes:
Staff is constantly revisiting that information and sharing it with Minnesota’s producers and processors in order to help bring these ideas to commercialization.

Partners:
Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council and Minnesota Corn Research & Promotion Council.